Different ways of working

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James Parker spoke to the architects behind an evolving 10 year scheme to provide flexible offices framing rare green space in the heart of Manchester, as part of a wider masterplan to create a new urban quarter

With staff beginning to return to city centre offices post-pandemic, one practice has seen the completion of a scheme in a key Manchester site which provides an attractive urban environment to welcome them, as well as the flexible futureproofing commercial building owners need. 1 & 2 Circle Square, designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBStudios) for developer Bruntwood, is a new workplace scheme in the heart of Oxford Road Corridor, designated as Manchester’s ‘innovation district.’ The scheme provides 400,000 ft2 of high quality office and coworking space at a cost of £75m, alongside 100,000 ft2 of retail and leisure, surrounding new green space.

The two workplace buildings, at 14 storeys and 17 storeys tall, form part of a new 2.4 million ft2 “neighbourhood,” being developed by a joint venture between Bruntwood and Select Property Group. The latter are developing two residential buildings for Vita, one student residence of 16 storeys, and a further PRS tenure tower rising 36 stories and creating a landmark in the area.

The new workplace is located on a former BBC site, surrounded by leading institutions in art, dance, culture, science and technology. The brief to the architects was for workspaces which would “help creative, digital and technology businesses to form, scale and grow.” The team worked to provide “fully flexible and adaptable” office space for 1 and 2 Circle Square, plus retail at ground and first floor.

The buildings act as a ‘gateway’ to the Circle Square development, and face onto Oxford Road, with its ranks of substantial red brick and industrial heritage buildings. They also create a new “active” frontage thanks to the ground floor retail, as well as a clearly defined pedestrian route into the green space of Symphony Park.

When FCBStudios was appointed by Bruntwood to take the office buildings (plus the central public space and two partially underground pavilions containing a gym and a Hello Oriental food court) to detailed design, they had already been working on the masterplan for many years. Architect Joya Zaman explains: “We were working on an outline planning application with landscape architects Planit IE, and tested various storey heights, and the mix. The quantums required by the client were then worked through, which established the distribution of volumes across the site.

Despite the fact that separate teams across the architects’ offices in Manchester, London and Bath were all working on different aspects of the scheme, Zaman says that because there was one overall contractor (John Sisk & Son) across the whole project, “there was a lot of overlap, and that worked really well, there were lots of advantages in dealing with site constraints.” Being a central Manchester site, the council’s planning department was also kept involved throughout the process, and was a “constructive” presence, adds Zaman.

Density & efficiency

With the site being tight and central, space was at a premium, and so the architects had to produce what Whittington admits is a “fairly dense,” but efficient composition of floorplates, however she says this is contextually apt, as “the local area is fairly densely built anyway.”

Zaman explains further that they “looked at the core configurations” across the site, and did the necessary weighing up of net to gross internal area (NIA to GIA) which is crucial to optimising commercial workplace projects’ efficiency.. The design originally had two cores, however the project team finally opted to install ‘superloos’ (self contained WC and sink units) which “help with the efficiencies,” says Zaman; “even though you need more of them, they take up less space, and can be combined.”

Whittington even pinpoints a general move to these facilities among commercial sector clients as being “one of the major post-pandemic things that’s happened,” with the emphasis now on floorplate efficiency more than ever. She says that while the original brief required separate toilets for male and female users, the shift shows how “everything can change in five years.”

However, in achieving a very efficient footprint, the architects have released 250,000 ft2 of public realm, including the first new park in central Manchester for generations – ‘Symphony Park.’ Sitting between the buildings as a communal amenity, it includes amphitheatre-style raised seating, and will host a variety of community and cultural events.

The architects produced many different studies for the masterplan, says Zaman, “trying different block configurations, including looking at winter gardens as well as placing of receptions and meeting spaces.” She adds: “Even how we oriented the cores and how you walk onto the floorplates – all of it has been thought through in terms of how potential occupiers are going to be fitting out those spaces.”

The two buildings are designed to have two distinct characters, number one for more corporate entities, and number two more for potential startups, including coworking. Its design enables each floorplate to be “broken up potentially into three different spaces.”

Facades

The elevation design has been developed as a contemporary interpretation of the classic ‘base, middle and top’ proportions of the mid-rise 19th-century commercial buildings of the adjacent Whitworth Street Conservation Area. Cantilevered frontages “define much of the ground and first floor and create an articulated base,” say the architects, and this produces covered walkways around the perimeter as well as views through to the central green.

The windows are framed by projecting horizontal and vertical fins formed as triangular prisms, which add character and provide shading to the interiors. The cladding has been designed to carefully blend with the existing brick vernacular but also to “create a dynamic piece of new architecture,” says Amanda Whittington, with the result being a uniform dark red ceramic exterior throughout, apart from the curtain wall sections, which marks out the scheme from the proliferation of glass facades in similar commercial districts.

Whittington sums up the effect: “It creates a dynamic frontage with a bit more depth than just having a glass block, gives it its own character. It says ‘I’m not your average office building,’ and sits within the context it comes from, but also has its own language and personality.” She adds: “Using natural materials, you get colour articulation across the facade that gives it a real USP.”

The only use of aluminium in the facades is at the lower levels where there could be damage, with even the window surrounds being in the red glazed tile (from Buchtile in Germany). The ceramic tiles run across the new residential blocks too, but with different colours and profiles chosen to delineate the different uses. Zaman says that they obtained “a lot of samples,” and the project team visited the manufacturer to talk to their colour experts.

She believes that a mix of solid and glazed facades is much more practical in energy efficiency terms than an all-glazed alternative, even going as far as to say that all-glass facades may have become obsolete in the context of climate change and net zero. “All glass is just not the way forward, with the thermal values that you want to be meeting, especially with the performance criteria that are coming in.”

With ceramic facades comes the inevitable question of carbon footprint, and FCBStudios have investigated the carbon implications of a variety of materials with its own ‘FCBS Carbon’ evaluation process. The practice has used similar facades on several recent projects, and while it has carbon impacts like any material, they have established where these can be minimised, such as that its clay is recyclable fully until the point it’s fired. Also with the tiles being clipped to the structure, they can be taken off and reused in future. They worked closely with specialised terracotta facade manufacturer NBK to explore suitable profiles, and worked with the contractor to ensure that loss of tiles during construction was at a minimum to reduce the cladding’s footprint.

The architects did an embodied carbon study across the project, which led to a rationalisation of the buildings’ steel frame so that it changes in thickness throughout the project according to use, which minimised the use of materials. And, as part of applying the NABERS Design for Performance approach to achieving performance efficiency, the architects provided additional M&E and riser space which would allow easy retrofit as M&E and technology changes, for example as more processes become cloud-based, and other aspects of infrastructure grow in size.

A flexible programme

As well as being designed to BREEAM ‘Excellent’ standards, the offices have generous floor to ceiling heights, giving them a “high end” feel, and a decent amount of natural light for occupants.

Due to the highly competitive nature of commercial building development, producing a design that would be able to flex to unforeseen client requirements would be crucial for futureproofing, including against the arrival of potential rivals nearby in the coming years. One of the design’s key flexibility components is the grid, which means that if required in future, the building could be turned to residential use.

Zaman explains further: “We allowed the possibility of each floor being let, but also at clients possibly wanting to put two floors together, so they can share, as long as everything is accessible.” She said that ‘flex’ was emerging as a key maxim in such projects, and also that clients are “moving away from BCO standards” when it comes to building dimensions, to achieve a variety of spaces where needed.

The shell and core approach has been straightforward Cat A, so the stacked floors have been left “basically as a blank canvas for the tenants,” and they have tended to take very different approaches. Amanda says that she has enjoyed being able to view the various fitouts happening from outside, particularly when lit up at night – and this has added visual variety to the facades. “It’s a testament to why we do flexible spaces, everyone makes it their own – you walk onto one floor and realise it’s the same floorplate as one below, but a completely different experience.”

Zaman says that having visited the offices since completion, it’s “really interesting how the different operations are working on each floor; seeing how the spaces are being broken into different elements.” She says tenants have created “fun breakout spaces,” as well as some “very comfy booths,” especially on the co-working floors. “The number and variety of spaces is amazing.” Also, the client’s intention is that the public will be able to wander in on the ground floor and use the pleasant open circulation space, with several cafes off it.

Conclusion

The building is now occupied, with office workers enjoying the green space of Symphony Park as a fully-accessible amenity, as well as users across the wider masterplan – such as people using the food court – being able to benefit from it on a 24 hour basis. With a rich, closely clustered mix of office, residential and students, enjoying food and beverage offers as well as retail, this will be a lively area of the city. Amanda says that as soon as the park opened, people were gathering and sitting in it, “even in the cold!”

Despite the pandemic’s emergence, a range of tech companies and startups have taken space in 1 & 2 Circle Square, demonstrating the credentials it offers, as well as the demand for central office space in the city. Major business tenants include Hewlett Packard in no. 1, and Accenture and Bosch in No. 2.

Although this building was designed as a workplace before the pandemic hit, and completed at the beginning of 2020, its space-efficient, as well as flexible design helps to futureproof it against the economic constraints now forced upon city offices. So without knowing the pandemic would be a factor post-completion, FCBStudios ensured it would be more resilient in an uncertain post-pandemic future. According to Amanda Whittington, the general consensus from clients was that people are “still looking for office space, but perhaps with lower occupancy densities,” to minimise risk.

She concludes that the design needed to fit the business climate of a workspace in Manchester, And she believes the result is “a testament to what you can do in an emerging environment to actually push the limits and do something really good, within a realistic budget.

However, despite its many design benefits and qualities, and the delivery of some precious public green space in the city centre, it may be this building’s inherent flexibility that is the factor that will give it resilience over the long-term.